31 December 2014

Revisting Batman Hush

I first read Batman Hush in 2002/3 when it first came out as a twelve issue story arc in the monthly Batman comic. I am not a great reader of DC comics but this was something of a relaunch by the then, and now, superstar combination of writer Jeph Loeb and penciler Jim Lee.

Hush lived up to expectations and has been a best selling graphic novel ever since.

Unexpectedly it was a conversation on Rolls Royce cars in the pub that led me return to it and a ridiculous digital price of £2.99 that made me buy it there and then.

That same ease of purchasing has recently tempted me to buy old collected editions of things like Swamp Thing, American Flagg, Dreadstar, Dan Dare and Federal Bureau of Physics. More on these late as and when I get around to reading them (don't hold your breath).

I'm not sure how we got on to Rolls Royces but we did and tales were told of driving them, getting lifts in them and famous people we had seen in them. That led me to repeat the story I had been told of Ben Kingsley apparently deciding which Rolls to take his children to school in according to the colour of the suite he was wearing that day, e.g. brown suit meant the brown Rolls. On reflection, if you have to make a choice like that then using what you are wearing to make it seems sensible, it is just not a problem that many of us face.

And that led me to think of Batman Hush.

Here we see Batman and Robin in Batman #615 (part 8) about to go after The Riddler who had just stolen an armoured car with $11 million in it. Obviously they need the Batmobile.

Then Batman reminds Robin that they have a whole host of Batmobiles to choose from. And in doing so, Loeb and Lee produced a simple explanation for why the Batmobile keeps changing in each new incarnation of Batman in comics, tv and film; it's not THE Batmoible, it's A Batmobile.

The simple idea shows why Loeb is a good, if inconsistent, writer and the double-page spread shows why Lee is such a good artist for superhero comics.

Having bought Batman Hush (again) to illustrate a point about Rolls Royce cars, I'll now have to read it (again), which is a bonus!

25 December 2014

Having A Merry Leeds Rhinos Christmas

I dropped some massive hints on what I wanted for Christmas, the sort of hints that come in emails with URLs to shopping websites, and I am delighted that they worked.

After some years of neglect I am starting to rebuild my wardrobe by throwing out all the worn-out clothes and replacing them with new ones. The throwing out part is working well and I just need to pay a little more attention to the replacing part.

I like cotton rugby shirts because they more flexible than jumpers (you do not need to wear a shirt underneath) and they are prettier too. It also gives me the opportunity to show my loyalty to Wales (international Ruby Union), Leeds/Yorkshire Carnegie (domestic Rugby Union) and Leeds Rhinos (Rugby League).

I already had two Leeds Rhinos shirts and at Christmas I got two more.

Rugby League is now a Summer game and the new Super League season does not start until February (that's early Summer!) but the new 2015 strip was in the shops for Christmas. These are, left-to-right, the new away and home shirts.

The home short is a slight variant on the usual blue and yellow but my other two away shirts are white and pink so the new one adds some fresh colours to my wardrobe. I am wearing the away shirt now.

21 December 2014

A bright walk on a grey day in Kew Gardens

I had not been to Kew Gardens for a ridiculously long time (for various reasons not to do with Kew) so I took this opportunity to return despite it being a grey and somewhat inhospitable day.

It was the wrong time of year and the wrong sort of day to expect anything special so I resolved just to get a fair few steps logged on my iPhone.

Having set walking as the main/sole objective it made sense to enter via Lion Gate where the spaces are wilder and the people fewer.

My route took me past the Temperate House that is spending the next few years being completely restored. Just to make the point absolutely clear the area was cordoned off with a big "Restoration" sign.

Only the top of the Temperate House was visible and that was enough to remind me of its splendour.

The south end of Kew Gardens is where most of the trees live and they seemed to be enjoying the weather as little as I was. The deciduous trees had long given up their leaves to expose bare branches that just had survival in mind.

But while the trees slept they left sculptured shapes that looked bold against the grey sky.

Inspired by the trees I headed to the walkway to get in amongst them, and to log a few stairs on my iPhone!

The walkway had been there a few years and I was used to it though it was still unsettling when sections sprang up as I walked over them or when sections had been clearly worked on to try and stop them from doing that.

The gentle swaying in the wind was not too pleasant either but at least I was able to walk round at my pace without people squeezing past me.

The point of the walkway was to get in amongst the branches and that is best done when they are in leaf and crowd up against it. In Winter the attraction was more the views that it offered across Kew Gardens and beyond.

As always, I climbed down from the walkway feeling rather pleased with myself for conquering it.

From there my next target was the Orangery on the far side of the gardens as that was the nicest place to get a coffee (and cake!) and was also the option that gave me the most walking.

After that I let the greyness win and headed to the Victoria Gate exit and the 65 bus home. I had done my steps, walked through trees and cleared all the cobwebs away. Even on a day as grey and miserable as this Kew Gardens had been stimulating and pleasurable.

20 December 2014

Who are You at Christmas?

I had seen The Who covers band Who are You at the Fox and Duck before and that was enough reason to see them again, especially as I was passing the pub on a bus on my way back from a Sparks concert.

Going to the Sparks concert first meant that I only caught the only last hour or so of Who are You, which was fine with me as while I like a lot of The Who's songs they have never been a great favourite of mine.

And seeing the end of their set meant that I got to hear the best of The Who's music, notably Won't Get Fooled Again. I was not taking notes (that would have been sad) and I was far to far away from the stage to grab a photo of the set-list so I am not certain what else they played but they were all songs that I, and everybody else there, knew and some disturbing but enthusiastic singing happened.

Who are You had pulled in a good crowd and that, with the catchy music and a few familiar faces, made for a good atmosphere in the pub. It is for all those things that I like to go to the Fox and Duck on a music night.

Kimono My Orchestral House by Sparks

Booking tickets for Sparks' orchestral version of Kimono My House at the Barbican had been something of a nightmare and I had to settle for a seat in the Balcony (the very top level). And I was very happy to get that.

Then they announced a second date and things got a lot better.

A week after the first attempt I was back in front of my PC eager to get tickets and this time there was less of a rush. I suspect that the touts had piled in on the first night hoping it was a once off and were reluctant to dive in on a date that they could not be sure would sell out. Whatever the reason the queue was easier and I was able to get a seat in the stalls, F36, for a miserly £30.

Row F is the back row of the front block of stalls that form a truncated triangle before a corridor then the first row that goes right across the theatre. To put it simply, it was a bloody good seat. And it was made even better when the person in front of me failed to turn up so I did not have a head to look around.

It was certainly a far better seat than the one Bryan Ferry had two rows behind me.

The show was almost exactly the same as the night before, and I was perfectly happy with that. Ron and Russell took up their stations at either side of the stage with the full orchestra behind them. I had a brilliant view of Ron all the time and could see Russell bouncing behind his music stand.

The music was clearer than it had been in the Balcony (there's a reason why Stalls seats are more expensive) and that had been quite good enough. On the second night I could hear the piano better and being closer made physical spread of the sound more distinctive.

The mountain does not go to Mohammed and Ron does not go to Russell so when there was a duet it was Russell who moved and that meant him coming across to my side of the stage. That allowed me to take a few photos like this one.

As always, taking photos was a balancing act between trying to capture a few key memories of the evening and not being distracted in the act of taking them to miss the music. I took about twenty altogether in just under two hours which seemed about right to me though around me people took between zero and a quadrillion pictures. Each to their own.

One slight change from the first night was the Ron Dance. On the Friday Ron had loosened his tie and stepped willingly in to the dance but on the Saturday he was far more reluctant and sat on the edge of the stage for a while as the orchestra maintained a holding pattern. But Ron was not going to let his greatest fans down and we got the arm and leg swinging performance that we were cheering for.

Ron was 69 and should either have known better or have retired a while ago. I am glad that he did neither.

Sparks got a thunderous reception at the end and I was standing up and whooping with everybody else (well, almost everybody, Bryan Ferry remained seated). Russell and Ron gave their thanks back and reminded us that their career owed a lot to England; quirky music is more our thing than America's.

They also mentioned a new album and I can only hope that they will be back in London before too long for some more concerts to promote it. They took a big gamble in bringing their show for two nights at the 1,943 seater Barbican Hall and it paid off with two sold out concerts. There is a big fan base here and we would like to see more of them.

Orchestral Kimono My House was a truly brilliant concert in every aspect (did I mention the lighting?) and was not diminished in the least by having seen it the previous evening.

19 December 2014

Orchestral Manoeuvres by Sparks

Sparks doing an orchestral version of Kimono My House to celebrate its fortieth birthday (!) was something that I was clearly going to be very keen to see. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, many other people thought the same thing and the Barbican website struggled to meet demand.

Having volunteered to get the tickets I sat busily, and increasingly desperately, refreshing the screen and trying to book seats only to find them gone when I moved to the next stage of the checkout. I thought that I would get no tickets at all but in a final act of desperation I went for three separate tickets in the Balcony, the top level of three, and managed to get them. I was hoping for better but going was far far better than not going so I was happy with that.

On the day there were a few spare seats in the Balcony, I hope that they had been bought by touts who had been unable to resell them, and I was able to swap B25 for A22 and a pretty good view of the stage.

Kimono My House was even better than I expected.

This was not Kimono My House performed by an orchestra (like Mantovani might have done) but a full orchestration of Kimono My House. The songs were familiar but noticeably different. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was the dark grinding coda given to Up Here In Heaven Without You.

Equator was my favourite track on the album and it was my favourite song on this night. It lent itself to extended play and that is what Sparks did, closing the first half of the set with the audience joyfully joining in with the chorus.

The second half was a greatest hits, many of which also featured in the Two Hands, One Mouth tours and it was nice to hear songs that had first been stripped to the bone then given full orchestral flesh. When Do I Get To Sing My Way was a particular favourite of mine (it always is) and it was good to here other regulars like Number One Song In Heaven and The Rhythm Thief get the orchestral treatment too. Let The Monkey Drive was a welcome surprise.

Constrained by the space and the demands of the music, there were fewer theatrics that usual though we did still get the Ron dance and Russell's unusual trousers (where does he buy them?). This show was all about the music and the music was brilliant. There was a long standing ovation at the end with Glyndebourne levels of applause.

Kimono My House may have been a risk, orchestrating a forty year old album for a relatively obscure band and putting it on in a large hall, but it was an undoubted triumph. So much so that they planned to do it all again the next day. And I'll be there for that too.

18 December 2014

When The Psychedelic Warlords came back to Camden, I was there*

For reasons that I do not understand, or remotely care about, The Psychedelic Warlords returned to the Camden Underworld just a few months after their last visit there and that gave me another chance to see them, which I eagerly accepted.

It was a Thursday evening so I arranged to work at home that day to allow me to get there in causal clothes. I really did not want to go there straight from work wearing a suit and carrying a big bag with a PC in it. I have done that before when forced (screwing my suit up in to the bag) but I'd much rather not.

If anything the plan worked too well and I was due to arrive much earlier that the 7:30 I was aiming for. That gave me another opportunity, this time to up my step count by walking from Hampstead Heath station. The walk was a reasonable distance so the exercise was good but the view was not. This was quite an ugly part of London and I took no photos along the way.

Once at the Underworld I first tried their own brand beer (no idea who brews it). It was rather lively and a bit pricey at £4.40 but it was quite pleasant and I had another one after the support band. They were okay too if not that exciting.

The Psychedelic Warlords did what they did last time (with a few slight differences) and that is precisely why I had gone to see them again. This time, knowing what to expect, I paid a little more attention to how they operated.

This was Alan Davey's band and so his bass featured prominently and proudly. Countering that, on the far left of the stage, was Zoie's keyboard and sonics which provided the lilting top-end to Alan's grinding bass. In the middle was Craig High's vocals, theatrics and various wind instruments. Providing the solid bulk of the music were Simon Wilkins' guitar and, hiding at the back, Billy Fleming's drums.

The set was a raucous sing-along dance-along to (mostly) good friends from the two albums Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters, and Hall of the Mountain Grill. Obviously the later album is where Psychedelic Warlords found their name.

I always thought of Captain Lockheed as being a fringe album, and it is but not to this crowd. Everybody seemed to know all the words to all the songs. It was almost as if we had all be listening to the album for the last forty years.

* I stole the "I was there" line from The Song of the Gremlin whose words were originally sung/spoken by Arthur Brown.

Hall of the Mountain Grill was also partially overlooked. Psychedelic Warlords and D-Rider did get played by the likes of Space Ritual and Hoaxwind

High Rise confused things a little by being thrown in mid-way through Hall of the Mountain Grill  It is one of my favourite Hawkwind songs (there are many of them) and I was delighted to hear it played live.

It was a delight to sing, "Starfish, Of human blood shape, Tentacles of human gore, Spread out on the pavement from the 99th floor." Bob Calvert at his lyrical best.

The music continued loud and proud and there was not a still body in the house. Mine was hardly the most energetic dancing but what I lacked in ability and movement I made up for in enthusiasm. The talent was on the stage, not the dance floor.

The nice thing about the Hawkwind family of bands is that even when they play the same songs they each have a distinctive sound and all of the interpretations of the legend are valid and entertaining.

The Psychedelic Warlords are a mighty fine band playing fine music and I definitely want to see them again.

17 December 2014

Christmas (the play) at White Bear Theatre was tense, funny, emotional and very real

It was a playwright, Chekhov, who first got me to go to the White Bear Theatre with an adaptation of Three Sisters and it was another playwright, Simon Stephens, who got me back there to see his play Christmas.

It was not quite as simple as that as it took me a while to realise who Simon Stephens was, or rather what he had done. It was Wikipedia that informed me that one of Stephens' plays was Port and as I loved the production at the National Theatre that was all the convincing that I needed.

It helped that he adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I had also loved.

All I needed then was a free evening and I found one on a Wednesday when I was working in London. It was a late decision to go and I booked the ticket on the day.

My first visit to the White Bear Theatre had warned me of the impossibility of getting food there, or anywhere nearby, so I planned to get something from Kings Cross when passing through but the new up-market concourse is either devoid of pasty shops or they are well hidden well away from the entrances to the Underground so I had to do without.

My first visit to the White Bear Theatre also taught me where it is and this time I turned left out Kennington station instead of right and I was at the theatre in just a couple of minutes.

I was pleased to see that the pub did pies, they had not done food previously, but less pleased to see that none of the options were vegetarian. I settled for a packet of dry roasted peanuts which, sadly, is not unusual when I have evening events. The Young's Ordinary was as good as I remembered it from the last time and that mattered more than eating.

The box office opened soon after 7pm to sell tickets to new arrivals and to give them out to people like myself who had booked them earlier (only four hours earlier in my case). The multitude of booking systems meant that they did not know for certain how many tickets they had sold and newcomers were warned that they might not get in.

On collecting my tickets I was told that the show would be without an interval and I took that as a hint to buy another beer to take in with me.

The doors to the theatre opened almost by accident just before the 7:30 start time. Somebody walked in and was not stopped so the rest of us followed him in. Despite the booking confusion everybody managed to get in and the place looked pleasingly full. I like full theatres.

Leaving the bar to go in to the theatre was to swap one bar for another, though the pub we moved in to was from another era, Christmas 2003 apparently (though the publican says at one point that Frank Sinatra died last year and that was in 1998). Behind the bar Michael was getting ready for his customers. Billy-Lee was the first to arrive. He was a casual worked who still lived at home with his mother.

The strong language was bit of a surprise at first but it was perfectly natural, I remember when we spoke like that in my local. The C-Bomb was sprinkled like a sparkler through the conversation and was used as an adjective too but it was said in a calm way and did not shock.

Later they were joined by local barber Guissepe, an Italian who had settled in London years ago and who had lost his wife a couple of years previously.

The final significant character was a postman who had just won some money betting on a horse and was going on a pub crawl to celebrate. He was drawn to this pub because he had been there some years ago.

A few other people came, did something slightly weird and then left.

The conversations ranged widely, as pub conversations do, and covered some familiar topics like football but they were also quite personal at times as each was asked about their plans for the future and incidents in the past. To pick just one example, Guissepe had an offer to go back to Italy to live with his brother that exposed aspects of his relationship to his brother and also to his deceased wife.

All of the characters had flaws and secrets to hide, as we all do, and some of these were gently teased out by their familiarity with each other and by the convivial nature of pubs (not bars). Accusations were made and tempers flared at times but the general mood was conviviality and the play was both funny and emotionally engaging. These were real people with real hopes, dreams and problems. I cared about them and wanted to know what was going to happen to them all.

Because of its language as much as anything, Christmas was the sort of play that will not appeal to everybody but those of us who made it to the White Bear Theatre had an entertaining, if tense, evening that we rewarded with long and enthusiastic applause at the end. I may have whooped.

13 December 2014

A day full of Shakespeare with Henry IV Parts I and II at the Barbican

I am definitely not seeing Shakespeare's history plays in quite the right order and it does not help that I did not learn my Kings and Queens at school well enough to put the plays i context.

At least the previous history play that I saw was Richard II, also a RSC production at the Barbican and I did see Henry IV Parts I and II in the right order too. It is just that in recent years I have also seen Richard III and Henry V and the later gave me a good clue as to how these would end.

It was the success of Richard II earlier in the year that had brought the RSC back for the sequels. The Barbican is not the easiest place for me to get to so the best way to see both shows was to do so on the same day. That was a staggering five and a half hours of Shakespeare and a total of around ten hours at the Barbican.

Henry IV Part I started at 1:30pm so I got there about an hour before hand to collect my tickets, eat and drink something and to settle in ready for the long session.

Neither performance was completely sold out and so, as has happened before there, the Barbican offered a free upgrade for both shows to seats in the stalls. I had deliberately chose the front row of the Upper Circle because of the price and the certainty of an uninterrupted view (I have a pathological fear of tall people in theatres) but the deal was that I could use my original tickets if I did not like the upgrade. That seemed very fair to me.

Henry IV Part I started where Richard II ended and we saw a ghost of the dead king at Henry's coronation to remind us of that.

Henry IV's aim was to unite the kingdom under his good rule but his plan to be nice to everybody quickly fell apart as old grudges led to new rebellions.

Meanwhile his son, who was destined to become Henry V, was living it up with wine, women and song. He was helped in this by Sir John Falstaff.

That led to two parallel stories that ran across the two plays, Henry IV quelling revolts and Sir John Falstaff taking every advantage he could with people. Over the five hours Henry V moved from the Sir John Falstaff camp to his father's.

The Sir John Falstaff story was the funnier and with Antony Sher staring in the role it was the main story too. This was a history play with just a little history but a lot of comedy.

The rebellions story was good too but a little predictable as I knew how it ended. The detail was completely new to me though as I knew nothing of the waring factions, or of the main players in them, beforehand.

I cannot recall where in the plots Part I ended and Part II started and seeing the two together proved to be a good idea.

I had a couple of hours free between the plays and this time quickly evaporated in a walk around the Barbican, part exploration and part exercise, and in a meal. I had though of visiting one of the exhibitions or of reading some of the comics on my iPad but I ran out of time. Relaxing can be very time consuming.

Henry IV Parts I and II are not Shakespeare's best plays (in my opinion) but they still managed to enthral me for five and a half hours and this production by the RSC did everything right without being too fussy.

It was a highly entertaining day and while I was worried that the two plays might be a little too long and the Barbican unable to keep me comfortable all day both fears were so unfounded that I would have been quite happy if the plays had been longer and I had had more time to spend at the Barbican.

11 December 2014

First Love at the Arcola Theatre was strangely charming, and funny

The reason that I am hoping to work in London more in future, as opposed to somewhere like Reading, is that I can make spur of the decisions to go to things like First Love at the Arcola Theatre.

The play had been on my interested list since it was first announced but, as is often the case, the problem was finding a free evening to go and see it.

I had arranged to be in London that day for no specific reason and when my evening was still free at lunchtime I went online and booked a ticket. Given the late hour I considered myself lucky to get a seat in the front row even if it was a little off to one side.

The weather was kind too and the rain that the Met Office said was due stayed away and that allowed me to walk the four kilometres or so to the Arcola. I had walked there before and now I had an additional incentive to do so with the iPhone counting my steps for me. I had plenty of time so I took a slightly obscure route to see some new things and to log some additional steps.

I got there in good time for a coffee and a sandwich of some sort, I'm fairly certain that it had humus in it, and to rest from my gentle walk before the play. I also had time to grab a beef to take in with me. Things were changing at the Arcola and my usual London Fields Red was not available as they were changing their supplier but they did have some London Fields Porter so I had one of those, mainly because it came in a decent sized bottle.

I headed for my seat (A4, a bargain at £18.00) and settled down for the one-man one-act show.

All that I knew about First Love was that it was taken from a short story by Samuel Beckett, and that was easily enough for me. Being a story it was narrated to us with the actor, Conor Lovett, adding expressions, gestures and movement.

The person subject to the First Love was an unusual man, a social outcast with autistic symptoms. He was living with his father and staying in his bedroom all day. When his father died the rest of the family took the opportunity of him going to the outside toilet to lock him out of the house with his few possessions. The story was narrated in the first person so it was through his unfamiliar viewpoint that we heard the story, much as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

The other play that came to mind was Elling in which two friends with what now call Learning Difficulties (not a very good name but it will do) tried to get on in the real world. In both cases out sympathies were with the story-teller and that story was one of charm and warmth.

The story of First Love was just that, how the narrator came to meet and end up living with a woman. It was a slow relationship due to the narrator's extreme reluctance to be with other people and even though not a lot happened it took almost an hour and a half to tell the story.

Two things gave the story its pleasing length, the extreme detail that the narrator went in to and the hesitant way that he told it, hence the suggestion that he had autism. To give an example of the superb delivery, at one point Conor was silent for almost two minutes while his character was trying to work out what to say and it was a dramatic two minutes - excellent theatre without words or actions, just expressions.

First Love was a remarkable, powerful and entertaining drama. The Arcola does that. Often.

10 December 2014

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (December 2014)

I usually describe each monthly BCSA "Get to Know You" Social as more of the jolly same but in December there were a couple of differences. Nothing that spectacular but differences just the same.

Due to another booking we were not in our usual room on the ground floor at the Czech and Slovak Bar and Restaurant but in the meeting room upstairs. This made little difference to the evening and the occasional walk up and down stairs to get beers was probably a good thing. It was also nice to have some different pictures to look at.

The other difference from recent socials was that I was able to work in London that day, rather than Reading, and that I meant that I could get there about quarter to seven instead of a quarter past. I know that the social does not start officially until 7pm but it is nice to get there before that to greet and prompt or early arrivals and, besides, the bar is open then.

I got my usual Pilsner Urquell from the bar before following the BCSA signs upstairs to the gathering. Despite being a little early I was surprised to find that I was not the first person there and so had somebody to talk from the very start.

The food was the same as usual and I have now given up any pretence that I might order anything other than Smazeny Syr. The only changes were the way that I composed the photo of my food and the filters that I applied to it. It was not really as red as that.

The food and the drink were pleasant enough (as always) but the evening was all about conversations and I had lots of them with regulars (e.g. Ruzena) and first-timers (e.g. Robert).

A large part of the evening was spent talking about what the BCSA could offer its members. This was part of a drive by new Chairman, Michael, who was there to have just those sort of conversations with the younger people that we sometimes struggle to reach as a society.

Of course it was not all business and we talked about all sorts of things, most of them soon forgotten as most pub conversations are. I do recall talking a little about places to go in Slovakia but that is not uncommon given my interest and the number of Slovaks in the room.

Despite the early start I was still there at the very end (10:30) and even hung around for a little while after the bar had closed to finish off the conversations that were in full-swing at the time. Conversations are hard things to end, there is always somebody who wants to add something (often me!), and so it was around 11pm before I finally left. Even then a group of carried on talking as we walked up towards the stations. In fact I was not left alone to listen to my podcasts until we passed Willesden Junction, which was all but home.

It was just another good night talking to various interesting people about various interesting things.

9 December 2014

Pomona at the Orange Tree suggested a welcome change of direction

Pomona sounded exactly like the sort of play that I wanted the Orange Tree to do but by the time that I got around to seeing it, in the last week of its run, I was a little worried because I had read so much good feedback on it on Twitter that my expectations were being raised too high.

My expectations were also set by the promotion picture as I know about Lovecraft's part-Octopus daemon Cthulhu.

In the end my expectations possibly were too high but that is not to belittle the achievement of the play.

That needs putting in some context. Being simplistic to make the point, the Orange Tree was known for discovering plays from between the wars and while there have been a lot of very good plays over the many years that I have been going there, they could be categorised as "period" and "safe". They also tended to attract the sort of audience where, at 57, I stood out as being young. There is nothing wrong with any of that but I prefer edgy modern drama and for that I went to places like the Arcola which also attracted younger punters. So anything that looked as though it was bringing Dalston to Richmond was good news as far as I was concerned.

Richmond is not Dalston yet and the Orange Tree lacked the friendly bar space of the Arcola (or Bush or Southwark, etc.) so there was no point arriving much before the start of the play. On this occasion I got to the theatre about fifteen minutes before the start and only had to wait a short while before being let in to the theatre.

I was back in my usual seat (now numbered A25) which had stopped being a bench and had become a canvass chair for this production. The stage had changed substantially too and the raised platform used in the first two productions in the season had become a pit. That had not been thought through properly and I was glad that I was in the front row as the view from the second was somewhat obscured by the people in the first. That is why raised stages are used.

The play was deliberately complex but not bewilderingly so and there was a simple story at its heart.

The main complication came from the fragmented sequencing that meant we saw consequences before actions and it took a while for enough of the pieces of the puzzle to be shown for the bigger picture to be revealed.

In that bigger picture was a Rooster Byron character in a JG Ballard world (Concrete Island to be specific) where mysterious and foul deeds were taking place. The play was (mostly) about what those deeds were and who was responsible for them. Leading to the conclusion was a missing woman and the sister looking for her.

The path was strewn with strong women (not that the men were bad) and I was most impressed with the ridiculously young looking Sarah Middleton as a young lady looking for a partner, Cthulhu, and a criminal mastermind or all three or none of these. I also liked Rebecca Humphries as the prostitute with a heart of gold and Grace Thurgood as the woman stuck in the middle of things she did not quite understand or was not able to control.

The play's quick scenes were well choreographed and that is what gave the play its biggest impact as the pit became various locations and the reasonably sized cast moved quickly, easily and rhythmically   across, through and around it.

The Lovecraft angle worried me a little. I'm not sure why it was there as he was fringe at the best of times so I think it was a fair bet that most of the people there had not heard of Cthulhu and it was more confusing when the Rooster character appeared dressed as a penguin (which was appropriate) but claimed to be a seagull. I was not sure if this was the actor's mistake of the author being remarkably obtuse. Either way it did not work.

A lot of things did work though and some of them worked very well. The play was engaging, stretching and while the story ended there were still good questions still to ask. Always leave them wanting more they say and Pomona did.

In some ways Pomona was a bold and shocking new departure for the Orange Tree and one that I thoroughly approve of. It is also one that attracted a reassuringly young and full audience. I hope that they, and I, get to see more things like that as the new Orange Tree takes shape.

7 December 2014

Office Politics at Theatre503 was sharp, dark and funny

Office Politics described itself as "three darkly twisted and hilarious plays" which is right in my sweet spot so obviously I was going to be tempted. It was on at Theatre503 too, another good thing. The bad news was that the only night of the two that it was on that I could get to was the normally theatre-dry Sunday evening.

The good triumphed over the bad, rather easily, and I went.

I got to Clapham Junction in time to walk to the theatre (the Health app on the iPhone 6 makes you want to walk everywhere) and to get a pint in before climbing the tricky stairs up to the theatre's waiting area in good time for the 7:45 start.

I got my usual middle of the front-row seat and while I took the usual photo of my view I decided not to use it as it was for the set of the panto and had no bearing on the plays at all.

The three plays followed one after another, rather like a sketch show but with much longer sketches that usual.

In the first two opposites collided in a lift. One was posh and a little late for his interview, the other was working class and very early. Then the lift broke down. Then they started to annoy each other with their habits. Then they learned that they were going for the same job. It did not end well. The confession from the posh one that he was from Richmond added an extra smile.

In the second a young lady was in a waiting room, presumably in a police station, where she went through the events that might have led to her being there. These were delivered in the non-chronological order that the brains connects things. The main theme was her unrequited love for somebody in the office who preferred, instead, the obvious shallow charms of another. Then they went on an adventure trip together. It did not end well.

In the final story two young men hit the town in a blur of Jägerbombs, cocaine and lap dancers. It did not end well.

Office Politics was what it claimed, three darkly twisted and hilarious plays, which was just the thing to brighten up a dull grey evening. Once again Theatre503 had delivered the goods.

6 December 2014

The Thin White Duke get it together at the Fox and Duck

There are few nights that are as much fun as The Thin White Duke playing at the Fox and Duck; the songs are brilliant, the band are good and there is always a great atmosphere in the pub.

I have seen The Thin White Duke play several times now and I think that I enjoy them more each time.

I made a slight mistake this time and assuming that they would start around 9:30, as they had previously despite the billed 9:00 start time, I turned up at 9:20 to find them already playing and the pub already buzzing. They were on their fourth song, The Man Who Sold The World. A good start.

I had to push fairly hard through the crowd to get to the bar to get my beer and then back towards the door again to join some friends who had grabbed a good spot there.

This spot used to be against the back of a bench but the two benches that used to divide off that section of the bar had gone in the pub's ongoing improvements, which also included a proper raised stage for the bands. I liked that changes as it made it easier to see the band and created more space for dancing. Not that I ever dance but some people do.

There was another surprise with an unknown bassist playing in the band. Just to fool you the picture above was taken in the second half of the set when the original bassist was back with the band. I spoke to him afterwards and he explained that work commitments meant that he was leaving the band and the new bassist was gradually taking over.

There was no surprise with the set-list, though they did sneak in two songs that were new as far as I am aware, The Stars are out Tonight (from The Next Day) and Stay (from Station to Station).

You just have to look at the set-list to understand how good the evening was. I was soon singing, then swaying and finally (against my better judgement) dancing. The Thin White Duke know what they are doing and they structure the set well mixing in some (possibly) less well-known songs like Diamond Dogs as well as a good selection of the hit singles. The last four songs were out and out belters and everybody in the pub was singing along and most of us were dancing too. It was wonderful.

The Thin White Duke had a well deserved break somewhere in the middle and then played until the midnight curfew, so not only was it a fun evening it was a delightfully long one too.

The evening was greatly helped by seeing so many familiar faces there, some local faces and also a few know from other music venues and pubs. I dread to think how many times Ralph has been in the same room as me!

The Thin White Duke are due back at the Fox and Duck on 25 April. It's in my diary.

5 December 2014

Loving Mouse Guard by David Petersen

I had been tempted by Mouse Guard for some time, and even bought the first volume as a gift, but had never found the time and the opportunity to read it before. Then I bought it digitally.

The problem with paper comics is that you have to be near a comic shop when you want to buy one (or succumb to the devil Amazon) and you have to be near the comic when you want to read it. With digital all you need is an iPad to do everything and I always have mine with me.

As is increasingly the case, the spur to buy Mouse Guard was a ComiXology quick sale (yes, I know they are owned by Amazon now but needs must), which had the first three volumes at £2.99 each instead of the usual £7.99. That worked out at about 50p a comic and was far too great a temptation for me to resist, so I swiped and touched the glass a few times and they were mine.

The story of Mouse Guard is fairly traditional anthropomorphic fantasy that sits somewhere between The Wind in the Willows and Lord of the Rings. It is both very cute and little dark. Some of the scenes are just beautiful, bringing back thoughts of people like Beatrix Potter and Tracey Helps (though not as twee as either of them) while in other scenes heroes die. There has been at least one significant death in each of the tales that I have ready so far.

The story does enough to entertain but it is the art work that has won Mouse Guard its reputation, as I hope this cover from the second volume shows. The owl, injured in an earlier encounter, had deadly intent in its eyes while one of the Guard stands small and defiant before it.

Mouse Guard is a sumptuous comic and I am loving it immensely.

4 December 2014

Celebrating a Trio of Czechoslovak Musical Anniversaries at the Slovak Embassy

The classical music that I hear live these days is almost always at operas and it is nice to add to this the recitals that the Slovak Embassy hosts from time to time. I also like the venue and the other people who go there.

The occasion this time was a recital arranged by the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) to celebrate three musical anniversaries, though I suspect that was something of a contrivance to justify the programme; which was Martinů's Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano, Janáček's Wind Sextet Mládí and Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor. As the billing suggests, these were three very different pieces played by three different groups.

I was aware of the composers and knew something of their works but only a little and none of these pieces. That did not worry me at all as, generally, I like Chamber Music for its simplicity and clarity (I like Minimalism for much the same reasons) so I was pretty sure that I would like this music. And I did.

The Janáček surprised me a little by sounding what I previously thought of as whimsical English music from the likes of Walton but readily admit that my knowledge of musical history is only one step above non-existent.  The Smetana was more like I expected with hints of traditional folk songs.

The concert lasted a touch over the hour and then it was the second part of the evening with conversations and refreshments.

As usual the Slovak Embassy put on a tremendous reception and there was soon a long queue for the food. I preferred to talk and to look at the art, the Slovak Embassy always has good art too. The high ceilings and concrete walls are a good setting for large bold pieces, like these.

I was especially pleased to be able to spend a good while talking to the wind quintet, Quintitus. They are from Paris so we started about why a French group were performing Czech music. From there we moved on to French music (not my strong point) and then on to opera houses (a little better). One of them was hoping to go to Glyndebourne that Summer and they convinced me to try the opera in Paris, an idea that was had to reject having admitted that I would be going to Ghent to see Akhenaten. It was an unexpected conversation in many ways and was all the better for being so.

There were other people to talk to and other things to talk about; there was some wine to drink too. I even found some bread and cheese to nibble on, not that I was that interested in food.

But all good things must come to an end and after a while people started to drift away and I slowly ran out of new people to talk to. Then I has somewhere else to be too and I made my excuses and drifted out toward Notting Hill Gate station and a District Line train.

3 December 2014

LIKE Christmas Party 2014

I have been a member of LIKE, the London Information and Knowledge Exchange, for several years because it's a good group of people with a shared passion for managing information.

The business meetings are instructive and fun and the social meetings are even more fun, and a little bit instructive too.

So it was no surprise that I was quick to put my name down for this year's Christmas dinner at The Marquis in Chandos Place on the south-west corner of Covent Garden. I arranged to work in London that day and had a pleasant forty minute stroll down from Kings Cross to get some exercise and build up an appetite.

I also built up a thirst so my first stop was the bar before negotiating the steeps curving steps up to the function room.

Once I had collected my glass of bubbly and name badge, my first job was to find a spot for my £1 Secret Santa. There are no pound shops close to Kings Place so that lunchtime I had a pleasant walk to Camden to do my shopping. I also had to buy a Christmas bag to put it in, which strictly speaking took me over the £1 limit but that is the price you pay for leaving things so late. The present was left somewhere near a window and I claimed my seat on the far side of the room.

There was much chatting, or networking as we like to call it, before we were asked to sit. Without any planning I found myself sitting with Martin, Andrew and Sarah, two of whom I'd spoken to several times before and one of whom was a new connection (now formalised on LinkedIn).

Our first task was the Christmas Quiz set by a fiendish librarian. Actually the questions were pretty far, the fault was in our knowledge; we really should have recognised more of the lyrics from Christmas songs. I still think that the picture of Batgirl looked more like Hit Girl, though I have to concede that Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) was a librarian while Hit Girl was not.

After the quiz came the food. I started with a soup and then a very impressive mushroom wellington. I had not gone there for the food but having food as good as this was a help.

The food came and went but the conversations continued, and they were the real reason that I was there.

At some point some people started to leave and that generated a little space for the rest of us to move around a little and talk to other people. It was good to catch up with Jennifer, for example.

I had arrived at the pub soon after 6pm and was on the verge of being thrown out almost five hours later, still chatting and still having a great time. Even by the high standard of LIKE events this was a glorious evening.

2 December 2014

Piranha Heights at the Old Red Lion Theatre was delightfully weird

I was vaguely aware of the Old Red Lion Theatre having been to the pub downstairs (prior to a visit to nearby Sadler's Wells) but had never been there, or had a particular reason to do so. Then a chance conversation at another Philip Ridley play at the Arcola alerted me to Piranha Heights.

The Old Red Lion is conveniently close to Angel tube and that made it fairly easy to get there, despite being forced to work in Reading that day. I even had time to eat in the pub, a vegetarian Bombay Burrito, though I did get a little nervous over how long it took to arrive. It all worked out in the end.

The theatre was upstairs but the box office was downstairs, in corner of the bar, and I was able to swap my email for a ticket while waiting for my food.

More or less on the dot of 7:30 we were summoned upstairs. It was a rather orderly rush and my years of training for such events meant that I was among the very first up and so was able to bag the front row seat that I wanted.

My first thought was it was rather like the White Bear Theatre, but much bigger, with a rectangular stage surrounded on two sides with seats in an L-shape. The size, but not the shape, were similar to Pentameters. Or, to put it in other words, this theatre in a pub was similar to other theatres in pubs that I had been to.

The stage was set as a somewhat dated living room. Here we met a middle-aged man waiting for somebody. That somebody was his younger brother who, it transpired he had not seen for a some time. We also learned that they were in their Mother's flat, that she had just died and they both had designs on the flat.

Then, much like a JG Ballard novel, the normal became strange and then outright weird.

An awful lot happened and it would be difficult and unhelpful to try and describe all of if; so here are just a few highlights. The younger brother had brought along a young woman and a baby who he had just met and who we wanted to have living in the house. The young woman had an exuberant young man in tow, not the baby's father. She spoke Gibberish. The older brother's teenage son arrived, he was weird in his own right (he spoke to an invisible Jiminy Cricket character). The son and the boyfriend met with a series of whoops and discovered a shared passion for violence and each other. The baby ...

Through this the relationship between the brothers, and with their families, got more complicated too; such as the younger brother suggesting that his nephew loved him more than his father and that he (the nephew) was going to leave his dad and come and live with his uncle in the flat.

The story was fast and chaotic; probably like a ride on Nemesis if I was brave enough to know what that is like. It was exhilarating, thrilling and exhausting. And, like a theme-park ride, reached a natural ending, though this one left me thinking about what was going to happen next to the brothers and to the two young men. Perhaps it was more of a pause than an ending.

There was a question and answer session with the cast afterwards which I stayed for. This gave some insights to their approach to the production, such as doing some rehearsals without words to get the movements right (there was a lot of movement). It offered fewer clues as to what the play was actually about as the cast had different opinions, the brothers thought it was about them but the others disagreed.

It was certainly about the stories we tell each other and how many of these are not true and what that means. Did the son really see Jiminy Cricket, did the others mean it when they said that they believed that they did, and did he believe them when they said that they believed him? You get the idea.

Piranha Heights was a frighteningly deep and complex play which I was able to navigate safely thanks to the superb crew. The ride was a very rewarding experience.

1 December 2014

Informative but directionless Compass debate on immigration

I go to far fewer political meetings than I would like, which I think says more about the lack of political discussion in this country at the moment than it does about me, so I was pleased to be able to go to a Compass event on EU Immigration fears: Who is to blame?

The timing, 5pm, was a little awkward because they had to meet the needs of the various presenters but the location was close to Victoria station and I was able to work in London that day and to get away at 4:30pm to make it on time.

The event was supported by Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German think-tank. This meant that there was a decent menu, mince pies to go with the coffees on arrival and some refreshments afterwards.

I sat at a table at the back. I like to sit at the back of meetings as that gives me a view of the other people there so it is easier to judge the meeting overall and also to decide when to join in.

I was pleasantly surprised to be joined there by Alf Dubbs (now Baron Dubbs) who I had campaigned for when between jobs in 1992 and who I had met only the year before at the BCSA Annual Dinner. We had a short conversation and I was pleased that he remembered me.

The discussion on immigration was introduced by Neal Lawson then we had short talks from Michael Orton Senior Research Fellow Institute for Employment Research at University of Warwick, Martin Seeleib-Kaiser Barnett Professor of Comparative Social Policy and Politics Oxford University and (arriving a little late because of divisions in the House) Lisa Nandy MP Shadow Minister for Civil Society and Compass regular.

The usual disclaimer; these are my notes taken from the speakers, the other people at the meeting, my notes at the time and my subsequent thoughts.

We can see immigration through the lens of insecurity; insecurity through zero hours contracts, high rents, etc. leads to fear, and this leads to scapegoating.

About half the population are in the anxious middle, not opposed to immigration but wary of it.

Pro-immigration arguments only reach the liberal left (me!) who are already convinced and it scares the anxious middle. By arguing for immigration we raise the subject and make things worse.

We need a simple and different argument to change the game (the same is true for the economy). We have not been able to do this so far (why is this?, a serious philosophical question that may suggest a significant problem with the way that politics is framed in favour of the right-wing).

The (suggested) answer at the meeting was to oppose neoliberalism directly, i.e. attack the root cause of the problem and not the symptoms. I am happy with that but the problem remains that the riposte needs to be simple, understandable and convincing. The facts and figures are on our side but not the narrative.

One simple message might be We Are All Immigrants, It Is Just A Question Of How Many Generations You Go Back. But that in itself is insufficient, that fact that immigration was good for us in the past is no guarantee that it will be in the future. Blame The Bankers Not The Bulgarians was also suggested but this assumes that there is something wrong that needs to blamed on somebody/something rather than celebrating immigration in its own right.

The UK is not good at providing the data required to support pro-immigration arguments and is at odds with the EU on the conclusions it draws. EU funding is available to help communities most hit by immigration but the UK is not using this, on some bizarre principle.

Enforcing regulations, like minimum wage, would help locals and make jobs more open to other locals. The benefit changes proposed by the Tories would require a treaty change, and that would need an unanimous vote, which it would not get.

Not only is the UK's view on immigration shared across Europe but other countries have recently made moves to support immigration. The Swiss said yes to immigration on economic grounds and the USA recently admitted 5m illegal immigrants.

Immigration has some general flows, eg. south to North in EU. Climate change will exacerbate this. The free flow of capital should be supported by free flow of people.

The debate on immigration is too focussed on the economy, i.e. arguments over whether we have lost or gained financially through recent immigrations, when there is far more to consider, especially culture. This is a battle about values and we cannot afford to lose it.

The language used is a problem, e.g. immigration is tightly coupled with migration and emigration but these aspects are rarely spoken about. "Immigration" is a bogey problem that each person can interpret their own way, e.g. Lithuanians taking low-paid jobs here, some ethnic groups keeping to their own communities rather than integrating to the wider society or Russian oligarchs pushing up London house prices.

While some interesting facts and ideas were shared, I felt that the scope of the discussion was far too wide to reach any meaningful conclusions, particularly as we learnt during the evening that talks like this just preach to the converted.

What was a lot more successful was the informal discussions over drinks and nibbles after the main session. Lisa could not stay, they were voting in the House, but I managed to grab quite a few words with both Michael and Martin and several other people there. That was my favourite part of the meeting and a good end to the evening.

30 November 2014

Space Ritual implode beautifully at the Borderline

Any Space Ritual concern is a special event and that was especially true in a year that I had not seen them at all (the last time was in December 2013) and this concert was made even more special by being billed as their last.

Their final concert was billed as The Space Ritual Implosion and was planned as a long event, running from 5pm to 10pm, featuring two support bands with Space Ritual members. Plans were changed late in the day as Nik Turner's Project 9 were dropped which put the start time back about an hour. That suited me as it gave me time to walk up to EAT for a snack and a coffee before the gig.

I got to the Borderline in good time to squeeze in to a spot on the front left before the other expected support act, Thomas Crimble's Inevitable, took to the stage. I also impressed myself by not getting the usual beer first.

Thomas plays keyboards for Space Ritual but here he was on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. The band's construction (lead, rhythm and bass guitars and drums) and Thomas' checked over-shirt suggested Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and the music did too, especially when there were songs about living on a farm. The songs were all original though and the band made a good noise playing them. Inevitable were the sort of support band that you paid attention to and enjoyed listening to, rather than talking through while waiting for the main act. They went down well.

After Inevitable we were treated to some jazz mixes from the decks of Sam Ollis. That was a good sign as he had a history of appearing with the band but had been missing from recent engagements.

As the rest of the band took to the stage it was clear that this was the Space Ritual A-Team with Nik Turner, Mick Slattery (lead), Thomas Crimble (keys), Terry Ollis (drums), Sam Ollis (more drums), Chris Purdon (noises), Gary Smart (bass) and, of course, Ms Angel (movement). Space Ritual have played with different and more people but this was my favourite line-up.

The set-list was a best of Space Ritual too, though this is Mick's copy and for some reason it had some songs missing from it. At one point Mick asked Ms Angel why she had come on stage and she said that it was for D-Rider which you will notice is not on the list. That mattered not, they played D-Rider and Mick joined in just as though he knew it was coming.

The music was typical, and wonderful, Space Ritual with familiar songs bent in to extended riffs before gradually returning to where they started. The thirteen songs were each extended from their original four minutes or so to about twice that. It was bouncy, funky, spacey, fun stuff.

Amidst all the familiarity there were a couple of things that I noticed. Gary Smart was so involved in the music that he spent a lot of time jumping on the spot as he played. That may have made him tired as he also sat down cross-legged for a couple of songs. Ms Angel had been shopping and had three outfits that I had not seen before (I last saw her with Arthur Brown). They were all sexy without being rude though a minor wardrobe malfunction on the gold outfit did show a little more that usual until she managed to fix it.

The place was very busy and the audience reaction was loud and enthusiastic. This may have been what tempted Nik to veer away from the "last gig ever" line towards "we'll see what we can do", which brought even more loud cheering. Obviously I hope that Space Ritual can continue in some form even if some of the current line-up are unable to continue.

Space Ritual's version of the Hawkwind legacy is different from the others who still carry the space rock torch and it's a sound that begs to be heard; and I'll be there to hear it if they do keep the magic going.

29 November 2014

Back to see more Bungles Finger at the Fox and Duck

For no particular reason, other than I am very busy with lots of things, I have been going to the Fox and Duck less frequently in recent months and I almost did not go this time.

I had spent most of the day (a Saturday) at home in front of one of my computers trying to catch up on my various commitments to the likes of Ham Amenities Group, Kingston upon Thames Society and the British Czech and Slovak Association, as well as struggling to order opera tickets for Glyndebourne and Ghent. I had not got as far as I had hoped at 10pm and faced the options of carrying on (despite being quite tired), collapsing with some comics, or going down the pub. Comics were winning the argument until I read the review of my previous (and first) encounter with Bungles Finger and that swayed things in favour of the pub.

The 65 bus conveniently arrived at the bus stop at the same time as me and I was in the pub just before 10:30pm.

The band were on their break then which made it easier to get to the bar and order the usual pint of Doombar (it was the only draught bitter they did) before finding a place to settle. That turned out to be one of my usual spots near the band just where the bar curves away towards the loos. It was a bit side on there but it is generally a fine place to watch bands from unless the dancing gets too manic. I later moved to the main standing area by the main door just to see the band from a different angle.

Bugles Finger do not have, or did not bring, their own lights so the only illumination for the stage was a basic table lamp on the shelf behind them. This is exactly what I did not want for my photos and this picture was about the best that I could do.

The band opened the second half of their set by saying that they would be playing some livelier numbers. Livelier than what I did not know but lively I like. I took no notes but some of the songs that I recall from their eclectic mix were Teenage Kicks, Ever fallen in love, Walk like an Egyptian, Sex on fire and Highway to Hell.

They ended the evening on a singalong note with I'm a believer, Can't take my eyes off you (!) and Delilah, which I tried to sing to in the style of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band when everybody else had Tom Jones in mind. Their loss.

The band finished just before the midnight curfew which gave me just enough time to catch up with some of the regulars in the sports bar before being nicely asked to leave. And I left very happy.

Bungles Finger ended my busy and tiring day on a welcome high note thanks to their good playing and interesting mix of unusual songs. Next time they play the Fox and Duck I'll try to get there for the first half of their set.

28 November 2014

BCSA Annual Dinner 2014 was another delightful evening

The BCSA Annual Dinner crept in to my calendar a few years ago as a duty, I used to be on the BCSA Executive Committee, and has quietly become an important part of my busy social schedule.

This year's was possibly the best one yet.

The basics of the dinner were the same as usual; traditional even. The venue was the Radisson Blu Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotel which while retaining its basic shape and character has improved a little here and there and also refined its name a little. The dining room we use had gained a darker due a few years ago but seemed lighter this. We also had a modern clear plastic lectern to use instead of the old-fashioned wood one. Only minor changes but indications of a commitment to quality and to keeping competitive.

The festivities were due to start at 7pm and I arrived a little before that in case any last minute help was required. In previous years I have done things like putting names to places but this year everything was done when I got there. So I went for a Budvar instead. People soon arrived in good numbers and I had plenty of friends to talk to.

Soon after 7:30 we made our way in to the dining room. My table was a little out of the way in a corner by a window but the location of the table was not important, it was the people sitting at it who mattered and I had Ruzena to thank (as always) for putting me on a table of interesting people, most of whom I knew, with Zuzana on one side and Katerina on the other.

The conversations flowed as well as the wine. The food was very good too. The blue spot on my card had me marked as a vegetarian, Zuzana managed to swap for the vegetarian option too and we had somebody else on the table who was lactose-intolerant. The hotel coped easily and with a smile.

Our after-dinner speaker was Dr Monika Gullerova, a Slovak scientist currently based at Oxford University. She was the other side of the room and the lights were down for her presentation, which is my excuse for this not very good photo, she is prettier than that. The camera does a better job of showing off her stunning dress.

Monika spoke about her work which had taken her to several institutions in several countries until she returned for a second spell at Oxford University.

She was amusing, such as pointing out that she was the one with the red hair in a photo of a room full of Japanese people, and instructive on the life of a scientist which seemed to consist of a series of short horizons with one research project following another. I got lost on some of the actual science, and I suspect that I understood more of it than most people there, but that did not matter; this was her story and she told it well.

I was pleased to be able to catch a few minutes with her after the dinner and to discover that we had a mutual friend through the Czech and Slovak Society at the university.

The food was good and I did not mind too much not winning one of the great prizes in the raffle, such as luxurious breaks in Slovakia. All of the components of the dinner worked well and either added to the pleasure of the evening when they were meant to or were unobtrusive when they were purely functional.

There were other friends to catch up with after the formal part of the dinner and there was still some beer left to encourage me to stay. As always at good events like this, the time whizzed past and I was soon rushing to catch the last tube home having missed all of the trains.

It was the people that made the evening such a fantastic success and it was the efficient and unfussy service from the hotel that created the ideal atmosphere for us to mix in.

We bill the BCSA Annual Dinner as the main event in our calendar and this year it certainly lived up to that billing.

26 November 2014

The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic was gripping but missed the point

I do not like to miss Chekhov plays and as I managed to miss two Uncle Vanya's this year (one because it finished early and the other because I could not find the time to see it) I was pretty keen to see this acclaimed version of The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic.

And I almost missed this one as well. I was very late booking and the only time I could find to see it was a Wednesday afternoon. I was very lucky as when I went online to book it there was a single seat in the second row (B28 for £35) so I grabbed that eagerly. Somebody up there obviously wanted me to go.

Being a mid-week matinee the audience was an odd mix of students and retired people with just a few people, like myself, somewhere in the middle. Being a matinee also meant no beers beforehand so I was able to time my travel to arrive about 15 minutes before the show started.

On entering the theatre I was surprised to see it laid out as a proscenium (traditional) theatre with all the seating to the front of the stage. I had been to the Young Vic several times before and while the layout was always different it usually had seating on three sides, i.e. a thrust stage.

There was nothing to see initially as a jet black blind hid the stage. There seemed little point in taking my usual "this is what I could see" picture as all I could see was black. I thought about taking a photo at other times but the staff were always sharp, a few people were caught trying to use their phones, and the black blind returned to hide the stage at the end too. I've settled for this picture found on the web as it more or less shows the view that I had. I guess that I was one row further back and about four seats to the left.

I had a comfy seat with a good view, which is just as well as the play was scheduled to run for two hours without a break. We actually got a break for a medical incident in the audience (I did say it was full of pensioners) but it was short and we stayed in our seats.

The Cherry Orchard had one broad theme, decline and renewal, that was played out through a sizeable cast who each faced the decline in their own way.

The range of characters used to tell the story was almost pantomimic with goodies, baddies and clowns. The main clown was Leonid, the matriarch's brother, who got carried away whenever he spoke, and knew it. He brought a smile to my face every time. Also clowning was the governess Charlotta, though I am not sure why she had to walk through the room naked after a swim.

The young servant Yasha was a very convincing baddie and, as so often happens in real life, he prospered. The matriarch, Madame Ranevskaya was the goodie and the main loser. Her goodness of heart was not matched by he financial acumen and she lost the family's money on a lavish lifestyle and imprudent loans.

A lot of attention was paid to portraying the individual characters and I felt that this was at the expense of the main theme. The production seemed to recognise this and it used mood music, such as used in film, to indicate the wood of the theme that was lost in the trees of the characters.

That said, the characters and their lives were absorbing and the two hours flew by. The thunderous reception at the end showed that this was a good Cherry Orchard, it was just not quite the Cherry Orchard that I wanted to see.